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Written By
Written By     Written By

(left) Lau Ching-Wan, and (right) Mia Yam, Kelly Lin and Ching Ying-Kit in Written By.
Chinese: 再生號  
Year: 2009  
Director: Wai Ka-Fai  
Writer: Wai Ka-Fai, Au Kin-Yee  
Cast: Lau Ching-Wan, Kelly Lin, Mia Yam, Zeng Qi Qi, Ching Ying-Kit, Yeung Shuk-Man, Bonnie Wong Man-Wai, Jo Koo
The Skinny: Wai Ka-Fai's fantasy-drama is a winning Hong Kong film that pushes emotions and ideas over artifice and complete coherence. The resulting film won't win over all, but those who roll with it may be particularly charmed. Having Lau Ching-Wan as your lead doesn't hurt, either. One of the more special films this year.
 
Review
by Kozo:

A message about living wrapped in numerous self-referential layers, Written By is about dealing with pain by writing a story about writing a story about writing a story. Got that? Wai Ka-Fai's bittersweet fantasy-drama features characters who cope with grief by writing an alternate reality, and the film becomes so steeped in its own layers of character-created fiction that it simply begs discussion. Stepping back a bit, screenwriters in the real world actually did write Written By's story, so one has to ask: were co-writers Wai and Au Kin-Yee exorcising some personal demons when they wrote their story about writing a story? Is this a metafilm about the catharsis of creativity? Or is this just a creative movie that's head and shoulders above most recent Hong Kong films? It's unknown if Written By is all of the above, but upon immediate reflection, it easily qualifies for that last one.

Also directed by Wai Ka-Fai, Written By tells the tale of Melody (Mia Yam of the Ronald Cheng film It's a Wonderful Life) who as a child was rendered blind in the same car accident that took the life of her father Tony (Lau Ching-Wan). Her mother Mandy (Kelly Lin) and younger brother Oscar (Chung Ying-Kit) also survived, but their loss holds sway even ten years after the accident. Now a young adult, Melody decides to ease her mother's grief by writing a story that diverges from reality. In Melody's fantasy, her father is now the lone survivor of the family's car crash. Now blind, Tony has only a Filipino maid named Maria (Yeung Shuk-Man) for company, and he's still hurting at the loss of his family. How, then, does this lone blind man cope with his day-to-day grief? Simple: he writes his own story supposing that his family survived. That's a story within a story within a story and Wai Ka-Fai is just getting started. Before long, the characters start to write over unexpected new tragedies, with their stories crisscrossing and getting seriously meta for the characters as well as the characters in the stories written by the other characters. Still following this?

Hopefully you are, because if you aren't then you're out of luck. Written By is creative to a fault, playfully mixing up reality and fantasy until it all jumbles into one large, hard-to-completely-follow tangle. Total understanding is not necessary, however; Wai renders his characters and their situations so deftly that by the time the plot gets tangled he's already earned goodwill. Melody's fantasy allows Tony the chance for reunion with his departed wife and children, and Wai successfully uses many of his previous techniques and themes to tell his could-be maudlin tale. His characters know things that they can't discuss openly, act on their emotions instead of voicing them out, and play pretend in order to maintain the illusion of happiness. This type of character-through-action has been used by Wai before (in Yesterday Once More, Love For All Seasons, and even Shopaholics, to name a few), and Wai wields his devices well, achieving a mixture that's part satire, part fantasy, and ultimately quite touching. Given his work in Written By, it's easy to see that the warmth and emotional surprise of the previous Johnnie To-Wai Ka-Fai collaborations came from Wai.

Despite Wai's creativity, the film does hit some turbulence. At a certain point, reality and fantasy collide and the film grows a bit tired, mixing timelines and storylines in a fast-paced and increasingly confusing manner. It's all rather entertaining but also a bit too much; like in his protracted ending to Shopaholics, Wai Ka-Fai can go too far with his dizzy pacing, threatening to lose or alienate the audience with his breathless reversals. That exhaustion can easily happen here, as the film rarely takes the time to explain what it's doing, and many of the narrative's twists don't seem to amount to more than cleverness for the sake of cleverness. The film's narrative is a large puzzle, and it would be charitable to say that it follows a cohesive and completely understandable thread when unraveled. Not aiding matters is lead actress Mia Yam, who's wooden and somewhat distant. Next to Lau Ching-Wan or even Kelly Lin, she's way out of her depth. Written By has its holes, and those who insist on pointing them out may have a right to.

However, those willing to suspend disbelief may find Written By to be quite rewarding. The film manages to entertain and surprise, delivering affecting emotions while also seeming genuine about them. Written By feels very much like a Hong Kong film - a grateful thing, given the local industry's lack of output and concentration on foreign markets. The production values are suspect with the frequent visual effects proving particularly unconvincing, but that low-tech quality is also a plus. This isn't a movie that asks the audience to be engaged because someone paid the special effects house a ton of cash. Written By relies on a unique concept, innately sympathetic situations, a charismatic lead actor and Wai Ka-Fai's creative, abstruse and ultimately winning way of revealing his characters and their emotions. The message he delivers is not revolutionary, but it's felt and appropriate, and carries a surprising weight. The cultural details are very fun too, with the characters' revisionist writing eventually extending all the way to the Buddhist afterlife. There's surprise and invention in Written By, as well as meaning and emotion that never seems pretentious. It may not be the best Hong Kong film of the year, but Written By easily qualifies as one of the most special. (Kozo 2009)

 

Availability:

DVD (Hong Kong)
Region 0 NTSC
Mei Ah Entertainment
16x9 Anamorphic Widescreen
Cantonese and Mandarin Language Tracks
Dolby Digital 5.1
Removable English and Chinese subtitles
*Also Available on Blu-ray Disc
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image credits: Chinastar

   
 
 
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